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How Star Wars changed movies a long time ago

The modern age of special effects

Filmmaker George Lucas’ galaxy far, far away holds a very special place in the hearts of thousands, even millions of fans around the world. Its timeless appeal on the young and old alike cannot be denied; from its intricate set pieces, riveting story arcs, thrilling space battles, action-packed lightsaber duels, eye-popping visual effects, creative sound design, rousing musical score… to its strong cast of unforgettable characters (human or otherwise)—all together weaved one of the most engaging cinematic narratives of our time. Let us look back at how Star Wars greatly influenced one aspect of film making in particular—the modern age of special effects.

zImage from www.nerdist.com

It is widely considered that the original Star Wars trilogy (Episodes IV, V, VI | 1977-1983), with its innovative blend of practical and computer imagery, is the godfather of all big-budget special-effects spectacles in modern cinema; and continuing the quote from wired.com—the second prequel trilogy (Episodes I, II, III | 1999-2005) also redefined special effects for the digital era in how the various spaceships, aliens, robots, and locations were almost entirely constructed out of computer animation. The craft behind these amazing feats that has so immersed moviegoers can be credited to a company founded by Lucas in 1975 called “Industrial Light & Magic”.

“With Star Wars, I wanted to do an action picture,” George Lucas said in a documentary by Starz about creating Episode IV: A New Hope, “I wanted to do a thing where I could pan with the spaceships; I wanted to do it with really short cuts. There’s a lot of rhythm, a lot of pace, a lot of movement on the screen, I want it to be very very cinematic—and at that point in time, it was impossible. You just could not do that with special effects.” When the studio came asking Lucas about how he was going to go about executing his script with a production budget of 8.25 million US$, he assured them that he would figure something out. “But I had no idea what I was gonna do.” He continued.

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There weren’t any companies available in those days that offered what Lucas required, and the special effects department of major studios had mostly been disbanded due to expenses. So Lucas was able to buy up old equipment on the cheap to set up Industrial Light and Magic in a Van Nuys, California warehouse. He was then able to enlist Photographic Effects expert, John Dykstra to spearhead operations.

Dykstra and his team were also responsible for designing the revolutionary Dykstraflex for the movie, a motion picture camera system that is computer controlled. It allowed dynamic moves for complex special effects shots in 7 axes of motion namely roll, pan, tilt, swing, boom, traverse, track, lens focus, motor drive, shutter control, and their duplication in multiple takes. It freed up the stationary camera that had been the norm for model photography in over a hundred years. “I think the success of Star Wars opened the doors for a whole series of genres of film that hadn’t been done before because people simply didn’t know how to make the images.” Dykstra recounts. He would go on to win an Academy Award for Technical Achievement for Star Wars Episode IV as well as an award for Best Visual Effects, which he shared with John Stears, Richard Edlund, Grant McCune, and Robert Blalack.

Another innovation called “Go Motion” was made by ILM in stop motion animation while working on Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. Conventional stop motion methods at the time resulted in rough, disorienting, and disconnected effects in movement. It is because each frame of animation was shot when the object was perfectly still, other moving objects in a similar scene will have motion blur. Go Motion will have the animated object move slightly during exposure to each frame creating a realistic motion blur effect. Those imposing AT-AT walkers from the Battle of Hoth and the Tauntauns mounted by Luke Skywaker and Han Solo are brought to life by this system. Other movies like the first three Indiana Jones (1981-1989) and the initial RoboCop franchise (1987-1993) made use of Go Motion before the widespread use of CGI (Computer Generated Imagery).

Alongside the theatrical release of Episode VI: Return of the Jedi in 1983, a high-fidelity audio/visual certification was implemented called THX. The system was developed by Tomlinson Holman as part of LucasFilm, named after the first movie Lucas directed as a student called THX 1138, but its official acronym stands for “Tomlinson Holman’s Experiment”. You might recognize its logo today from movie theaters, screening rooms, home theaters, computer speakers, gaming consoles, car audio systems, video games, and more. This signifies that the sound you will hear is of an environment or medium that will give you a quality-assured experience as near as possible to the intentions of the mixing engineer; pushing the final installment of the original trilogy further ahead of its time. THX continues to establish itself as a benchmark for excellence under their current parent company Creative Technology Limited.

Lucas had also made the pivotal move of hiring Ed Catmull (current President of Pixar Animation studios and Walt Disney Animation Studios) to start the LucasFilm Computer Graphics division back in 1979. It was their aim to push the computer’s potential in generating effects and editing scenes, which at the time was tediously done by having optical printers re-photograph one or more sheets of film. Catmull was asked to bring in technologists and computer scientists to develop hardware and software, as well as advance texture mapping, motion blur, digital matte painting, and compositing programs. One of their early achievements was the ability to create smooth curved surfaces and wrap textures around them for more detail. This division would go on to become the powerhouse known today as Pixar.

Academy Award winning visual effects expert, Dennis Muren (currently the Senior Visual Effects Supervisor at ILM, who also worked on the Star Wars films) would be responsible for bringing these innovations of a budding digital age to Industrial Light and Magic. They would go on to create the first computer-made, visual effects shot for a motion picture in Star trek: The Wrath of Khan (1982). They further pushed the envelope in creating the first fully computer-generated, photo-realistic animated character, “The Stained Glass Man”, for the movie Young Sherlock Holmes (1985). The demand for ILM’s services boomed while outstandingly delivering milestones on films like Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991 | First partially computer-generated main character), Jurassic Park (1993 | First time digital technology was used to create complete and detailed living creatures), and Jumanji (1995 | First computer-generated photo-realistic hair and fur) among others—setting up the stage for Lucas, the founder, to commission his studio for the toughest, most extensive undertaking in motion picture CGI at the time—the Star Wars prequel trilogy.

“It became pretty clear up front that this was going to be unlike any other special effects movie ever done.” film producer Richard McCallum said in the making of Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999), he continues—“To put it in perspective; a big film has maybe 250 effects shots, a really monster film like Titanic will have 450 to 500, but it was really clear that George (Lucas) was thinking 1,700 to 2,000 shots; and the thing that I was most afraid of was—can ILM do it? Could any effects house do that?”

But the film and its next two installments proved a notable jump in bluescreen (or greenscreen) composite shot technology. It is the process of combining separately shot footage of actors and backgrounds into one seamless scene. Cast members would have to muster every inch of their craft to play their roles in often times blank, monochromatic spaces. Although we have been seeing a return to the old school ways of practical effects, the prequel trilogy showed us such visual quality with CGI that it prompted the next wave of epic, blockbuster films to strive for higher heights.

Now 38 years into its legacy (with Episode VII: The Force Awakens, gathering critical acclaim and record breaking numbers), one can only marvel at what the franchise has achieved on a cultural level. A time may come when we Filipinos might one day create a sprawling universe of our own among the stars, and see it come to life on the big screen.

  • Larry Walters

    I don’t know about the picture advances that you’ve discussed, but your comments on the audio portion are mostly incorrect. The THX system was mostly a “certification” program that required theaters (who hadn’t upgraded their sound systems in decades) to put more modern speakers into these rooms. The acoustical treatment called out by THX was technically and scientifically wrong and has been repudiated by the technical standards organization SMPTE. And your assertion that THX still exists is a joke, right? No theater would even consider such nonsense now.

    THX was a marketing scheme dreamed up by Tomlinson Holman. It was used by him as a self-promotion for years. He’s now buried inside Apple where reports are the audio engineers regard him as kind of an aging audio relic, as Holman had no real engineering training but some kind of liberal arts degree.

  • Larry Walters

    I don’t know about the picture advances that you’ve discussed, but your comments on the audio portion are mostly incorrect. The THX system was mostly a “certification” program that required theaters (who hadn’t upgraded their sound systems in decades) to put more modern speakers into these rooms. The acoustical treatment called out by THX was technically and scientifically wrong and has been repudiated by the technical standards organization SMPTE. And your assertion that THX still exists is a joke, right? No theater would even consider such nonsense now.

    THX was a marketing scheme dreamed up by Tomlinson Holman. It was used by him as a self-promotion for years. He’s now buried inside Apple where reports are the audio engineers regard him as kind of an aging audio relic, as Holman had no real engineering training but some kind of liberal arts degree.

  • Larry Walters

    I don’t know about the picture advances that you’ve discussed, but your comments on the audio portion are mostly incorrect. The THX system was mostly a “certification” program that required theaters (who hadn’t upgraded their sound systems in decades) to put more modern speakers into these rooms. The acoustical treatment called out by THX was technically and scientifically wrong and has been repudiated by the technical standards organization SMPTE. And your assertion that THX still exists is a joke, right? No theater would even consider such nonsense now.

    THX was a marketing scheme dreamed up by Tomlinson Holman. It was used by him as a self-promotion for years. He’s now buried inside Apple where reports are the audio engineers regard him as kind of an aging audio relic, as Holman had no real engineering training but some kind of liberal arts degree.

  • Larry Walters

    I don’t know about the picture advances that you’ve discussed, but your comments on the audio portion are mostly incorrect. The THX system was mostly a “certification” program that required theaters (who hadn’t upgraded their sound systems in decades) to put more modern speakers into these rooms. The acoustical treatment called out by THX was technically and scientifically wrong and has been repudiated by the technical standards organization SMPTE. And your assertion that THX still exists is a joke, right? No theater would even consider such nonsense now.

    THX was a marketing scheme dreamed up by Tomlinson Holman. It was used by him as a self-promotion for years. He’s now buried inside Apple where reports are the audio engineers regard him as kind of an aging audio relic, as Holman had no real engineering training but some kind of liberal arts degree.